The Value of Nutrient Timing for Building Muscle

Nutrient timing refers to the time in which you consume food and/or beverages to maximize the impact on your body. There has been much debate about whether strategically eating at certain times can even make a difference. Pre and post-workout are the two most common periods that are said to have a significant difference to your muscle building. That is, if you’re optimizing it properly. This is why you may have also seen people suggest eating fast-releasing carbs right before training. It’s also why seeing gym-goers drink a protein shake while walking out of the gym is common.

With all that being said, is it really worth coordinating your meal times to your training? Does it actually make a difference? We’ll take a look at pre-training and post-training nutrient timing.

Pre-training nutrient timing

Pre-training isn’t given as much focus as post-training nutrients but it still plays a significant role. If you’re not adequately fueled, then this can cause a negative effect on your performance, leading to weaker lifts, faster fatigue and/or no energy. 

As a general rule, don’t eat right before a workout. It can cause a stitch or some discomfort in your stomach as you’re trying to work out. Of course, this will lead to weaker training performance. However, if you do need to snack on something right before, then something small that is a fast-acting carbohydrate is ideal. This is so that you can reap the benefits of the carb in your training immediately, unlike slow-releasing carbs that are absorbed much more slowly in the body. Any piece of whole fruit such as a banana or apple is good.

If you need a complete meal, eat this 2-4 hours before exercising. This nutrient timing will really depend on the individual and how well you digest food. Some people may be able to eat closer to working out than others. This is where slow-releasing carbs will benefit you more as, by the time you hit the gym, you’ll get the energy hit.

Carbohydrates should be the main macronutrient on your plate as it’s what gives us energy and help with recovery as well as protein to prime the muscles. 

The post-training anabolic window

If you’ve ever been to the gym or have done some research on it, then you’ve probably come across something called the anabolic window. The anabolic window is a theory that places high value on the post-workout time as the ideal time to maximize muscle and strength growth. Generally speaking, it refers to the 30-minutes to 1-hour after you complete your workout. You’ll miss out on potential muscle gains if you miss this window. Theoretically.

However, little research actually supports this theory. In fact, this study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition proves that there is little significance to the value of nutrient timing when it comes to the anabolic window and building strength. There was also very little effect on muscle mass. 

With that being said, it’s still important to eat after training to refuel your body. While it may not significantly enhance your muscle and strength growth, it will replenish your energy stores. Otherwise, you may experience disorientation, fatigue and low blood sugar. If you don’t drink enough water and sodium, you’ll risk dehydration as well. 

Value quality and quantity over nutrient timing

The value of nutrient timing seems to be quite minimal. While there are general guidelines, such as fueling your body before and after a workout, the magical time that supposedly enhances nutrient absorption for muscle gains has little effect.

Instead, you should focus on the quality of the food and beverages you’re consuming. Eat a balance of macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates and fats—to ensure that you’re fueling your body with what it needs to function properly. Also, don’t forget about your micronutrients like your fruits and vegetables, as this is pivotal for your health.

Also, take into account the type of training that you do. If you’re going to be doing long cardio sessions, then ensure you eat enough beforehand to fill your energy stores. This way, you’ll be able to delay fatigue for as long as possible. On the other hand, if you do short and intense HIIT sessions, then it’ll be more important to quickly refuel after a session as soon as possible.

Consuming the right amount of protein, carbohydrates and fats is more significant than nutrient timing. This amount should consider your current stats as well as your training and lifestyle. Follow a consistent diet with your workouts and focus on what you eat rather than when you eat. You’ll be on the right path to being a healthier you while still building muscle.

Emily Trinh
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